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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Deuteronomy 13



Inticers to idolatry, however nearly related, are not to be hearkened unto, but to be capitally punished; and cities, become idolatrous, are to be wholly destroyed.

Before Christ 1451.

Verses 1-4

Ver. 1-4. If there arise among you a prophet, &c.— The divinity of their religion, and its peculiar opposition to idolatry, having been fully shewn,

Moses now proceeds to put the strongest case possible; acquainting them, that if any prophet or dreamer of dreams, any person pretending to supernatural inspiration, should give them a sign or a wonder, should predict or perform any thing extraordinary, and make that the ground of drawing them aside from the worship of their God to that of idols, they should utterly disregard any such sign or wonder, nor be at all influenced by it to hearken to the words of the deluder; assured that he could not be commissioned by God, who, being always the same, can never contradict himself: and in this confidence, though perhaps they might not be able to discover the mode of his deceit, or the method by which he was able either to foretel or to perform any thing extraordinary; though they could not tell whether he did it by mere juggling, or by communications with evil spirits; yet they were absolutely to put such a person to death, infallibly assured that no messenger from God could ever attempt to seduce them from the worship of that God. From the 3rd verse one may be led to believe, that, as the Almighty sometimes permits other evils for the same end of proving his people, so he thought fit to allow among the Jews such persons as are here spoken of to perform things really stupendous and miraculous; and how far he may have permitted evil spirits to assist such persons is not for us to determine. This, however, by no means impugns his wisdom or goodness; for as, in the present case, he gave the Israelites such an infallible criterion whereby to determine, so, in all cases, we may be assured that he will either vouchsafe to mankind such criterions, or give to the miracles which real prophets perform such evident marks of divinity and superiority over those of others, as shall never leave the human mind in doubt. Indeed, were we not infallibly assured of this from the very nature of God, we could have no sure foundation whereupon to build our faith, nor any infallible test whereby to prove the truth of a revelation. This subject has been completely handled by Dr. Chapman, in his excellent work called Eusebius, chap. 2. Those, however, who desire to see more and different opinions, may consult Bishop Stillingfleet's Origines Sacrae, lib. ii. c. 10, where he speaks of discerning true miracles from false; Wells's Sermons at Boyle's Lecture, and Bishop Chandler's Defence. Mr. Locke very well observes upon the subject, that "since God's power is paramount to all, and no opposition can be made against him with a force equal to his; and since his honour and goodness can never be supposed to suffer his messenger and his truth to be borne down by the appearance of a greater power on the side of an impostor, and in favour of a lie; whenever there is an opposition, the signs which carry with them the evident marks of a greater power will always be a certain evidence that the truth and divine mission are on that side on which they appear. For, though the discovery, how the lying wonders are or can be produced, be beyond the capacity of the ignorant, and often beyond the conception of the most knowing spectator, yet he cannot but know that they are not seals set by God to his truth for the attesting of it; since they are opposed by miracles, which carry the evident marks of a greater and superior power, and therefore they cannot at all shake the authority of one so supported. God can never be thought to suffer that a lie, set up in opposition to a truth coming from him, should be backed with a greater power than he will shew for the confirmation and propagation of a doctrine which He has revealed to the end it might be believed."

And giveth thee a sign or a wonder Le Clerc thinks, that sign and wonder here signify nearly the same thing: but Houbigant asserts, that the particle או ou, rendered or, is disjunctive in the Hebrew; and that, consequently, these two words denote different things. Accordingly, he thinks that a wonder is something more than a sign: the latter signifying a miracle subjected to the human sight, the former such a one as affects man; of which kind were the Egyptian plagues. Both kinds, however, here mean true miracles, things supernatural; for the original words are never used in sacred writings for the jugglings and fallacies of diviners, and therefore the miracles of Moses and Aaron are never expressed by any other words. In the 2nd verse, there is a transposition very frequent in Scripture; the two verses may be read together thus: If there arise among you a prophet, &c. saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, (had no communication with, or intelligence of,) and let us serve them; and shall give you a sign or a wonder, which shall come to pass, according to what he spake unto thee, &c.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. Because he hath spoken to turn you away Margin, spoken revolt against the Lord; in which words we read the reason of the law. The crime of the false prophet was a crime of lese majeste and high treason: in preaching apostacy, he preached revolt; and that which makes his crime most odious is, that, to favour idolatry, he calls himself the messenger of God; and, under the sanction of this title, solicits the Israelites to renounce their obedience to the Lord. Nothing could be more culpable than such an imposture. One could scarcely believe that the later Jews had justified their rejection of our Saviour by this passage in the law; the fact, however, is true. "Our law," they say, "permitted us not to receive Jesus for a true prophet, whatever were his miracles, because he proposed the destruction of our religion." Now, not to say that the proposition is false, and that Jesus Christ, so far from forming any design to abolish the religion of Moses, declared on the contrary, in the plainest manner, that he came not to destroy, but to accomplish it; not to insist upon this, there are two things which evidently distinguish our Saviour from the false prophet here pointed out: first, it was not one sign or one miracle only which Jesus wrought to prove the divinity of his mission; his miracles were both more in number and more excellent than those which were performed by Moses: but what probability is there that God should have given him such permission and power, if he had not been, as he declared himself, the CHRIST? Secondly, in the words of Moses, a prophet is spoken of who would seduce the people to idolatry; but the man must have lost all shame who imputes this crime to the legislator of the Christians. See Bishop Kidder's Demonstr. of the Messiah, part 2 Chronicles 1:0 p. 4 fol.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. If thy brother, &c.— To convince them of the high duty they owed to God, and to shew them that this law ought to be executed in its utmost rigour against a sin which struck at the very foundation of their religion and government, Moses puts the case in the strongest manner; that if the nearest and dearest relation and friend should entice a man to the worship of false gods, he was to have no mercy upon the enticer, but was to put him to death, ver. 9. The reason of the thing, however, shews that these two circumstances were to be understood: first, that the seducer be convicted by two sufficient witnesses before the proper magistrates, see Numbers 35:30; 2nd, that the offender obstinately persist to defend idolatry in spite of admonition: for who can doubt but that a father, for instance, might save the life of his son, in case he brought him to timely repentance? Therefore the rabbis very justly supply these two mitigations of the law. In the words of this verse we have a fine idea of friendship: thy friend which is as thine own soul; a faithful friend is another self: the same spirit seems to animate two persons who love cordially, and according to the laws of piety and virtue. Such was the language of Pythagoras, and of Aristotle, copied, most probably, from this of Moses, the eloquence and energy of which was not to be effaced by them. A modern poet, speaking of two friends, says beautifully:

"Like objects pleas'd them, and like objects pain'd ——'Twas but one soul that in two bodies reigned." See STILLINGFLEET'S Essay on Conversation.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. Thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death The person was to be stoned, and the accuser was to throw the first stone at him, together with the witnesses; see chap. Deuteronomy 17:7. To this our Saviour alludes, John 8:7. This law at first sight may appear too great a trial to humanity; but it is no more than requiring a compliance with that plain principle of morality, that we are to sacrifice all private considerations to the good of the public: as well as with that first principle in religion, that we are to sacrifice all private connections to the love of God. Such is the doctrine which our Saviour teaches, when he says, if any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26.

REFLECTIONS.—Our nearest and dearest relatives, in this particular, must have no regard shown to them; should they tempt us secretly to idolatry, the same holy indignation must fire our bosoms against them: we must neither conceal nor pity them. Our hand must be first upon them to stone them, and then that of all the people; that thus both the evil may be removed, and such execution deter others from the like criminal attempts. Note; (1.) Those temptations are doubly bewitching, which come through persons whom we love. (2.) The hope of secresy and security in sin is a great snare to lead men into it. (3.) To conceal the criminal from justice, is to be a party in his crime. (4.) The design of every execution is to strike terror into others, that they may be kept from the same guilty ways and miserable end.

Verses 12-15

Ver. 12-15. If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities From the case of particular persons, Moses proceeds to that of whole cities; by which must be meant Israelitish cities, professing the true religion. Children of Belial signify the most profligate and worthless: Belial signifies, properly, one who is good for nothing, subject to no law, no yoke; and so is a fit name for the devil, and all the sons of disobedience. See Judges 19:22. 1 Samuel 1:16; 1Sa 10:27; 1 Samuel 17:25. The rabbis, not without reason, understand the present law thus: If the inquisitors found, upon due examination, that there was evident proof of the charge alleged against the city, they were to make their report to the Sanhedrim, who were first to endeavour, by arguments and persuasions, to reclaim the people of the place to their duty; and if they prevailed, they were pardoned: but if they continued obstinate, then the Sanhedrim commanded the people of Israel to raise an army, besiege the place, and enter it by force, if they could not otherwise; and when the city was taken, several courts were appointed to try and condemn all who were guilty: if they proved to be the lesser part of the city they were stoned, and the rest freed from punishment; if the majority were found guilty, they were all adjudged to be cut off by the sword, together with their wives and children. See Selden de Syned. lib. iii. c. 5.

Verse 17

Ver. 17. There shall cleave nought of the cursed thing to thine hand Nothing could be more wisely appointed than this law, which served at once to create in them the greatest abhorrence of idolatry, and at the same time prevented any temptations to destroy an innocent city for the sake of plunder. After such severe and strict laws for the extirpation of idolatry, one cannot help being astonished at the absurdity of Voltaire's attempt to prove that idolatry was tolerated among the Jews.

That the Lord may—multiply thee As if he had said, "Fear not that the total destruction of a great city will prejudice your commonwealth; for the Lord, in consequence of your obedience to his commands, will give you other citizens, and those in great abundance." With respect to the punishment denounced in this chapter, it was necessary; for nothing was more important than to prevent a crime which sapped the very foundations of the Hebrew constitution church and state. Grotius remarks, that idolatry and blasphemy were the only crimes to which a confiscation of goods was attached; as religion is the bond of society, impiety and irreligion are its destruction. See De Jur. B. et P. lib. 2: cap. 20. We should, however, remark at the same time, that, as the law here treated of was founded upon the particular constitution of the people of Israel, we cannot justly conclude from it, that it is lawful among other nations to punish idolaters with death, however enormous their crime may be.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 13". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.